Monday, October 10, 2005

An October Primer on Campaign Finance Reform

Money, the mother’s milk of politics, is given by lobbyists, mostly to incumbents. So, what’s wrong with this?

The conventional answer is that it creates the impression that politicians are on the take. And, as we know, in politics, impressions – or is that “appearances?” – are determinative.

Here in Connecticut, some politicians have been sunk by the “appearance of corruption” torpedo, but others who frequently have accepted campaign contributions from lobbyists affected by legislation they promote have escaped serious injury.

U.S Sen. Chris Dodd says that his contributors, many from the financial sector, do not affect how he votes on issues. Contributors apparently send money to the senator as an expression of political solidarity: It is not the contribution that occasions the vote, but the vote that occasions the contribution. It’s very important in these matters to get the right horse in front of the right cart.

There are critics of campaign finance reform who say that the reforms create distortions in the political market place and do little to combat corruption. The reform cure very well may be worse than the disease.

There are hurdles to be overcome, not the least of which is a Supreme Court decision that campaign contributions are an inviolable form of free speech protected by the Constitution. However, that hurdle may gingerly be surmounted by a court prone to fanciful interpretation.

And there are other obstacles. The campaign finance reform plans now afoot all drive political parties from adequately financing politics. One school of thought holds that transparency – the publication of contributions and contributors – may be the least disruptive means of preventing incumbent politicians from falling down the rabbit hole of corruption.

The real obstacles to a healthy turnover of incumbents, according to this view, is not the stranglehold lobbyists have on political financing but gerrymandered districts, a media that fears to upset powerful incumbents they have conscripted to press their views, and the refusal to eliminate those means of filling campaign coffers incumbents do not wish to surrender – campaign revenue from ad-books, for example.

Money, like water, will always find a way. National campaign finance reform succeeded in depriving political parties of necessary funds; but it is largely responsible for the mushrooming of extra-party organizations that water ideological fellow travelers with cash. Not a good thing, say those who continue to believe that political parties are indispensable in functioning democracies.

The struggle in Connecticut appears to be waged between a chastened Gov. Jodi Rell, lifted into office after former Governor John Rowland’s resignation, and a Democratic controlled legislature that has turned a baleful eye on campaign finance reform.

That view is partly true. Leading Democrats have in the past supported the public financing of campaigns – at least, they’ve given lip service to the notion. They were taken by surprise – routed, actually – when Rell came out publicly in favor of the idea. But Rell linked public financing with other reforms, less desirable from their point of view, that will not bode well for incumbents: She proposed, for instance, a ban on contributions from contractors and others who do business with the state, as well as an end to ad-books.

That hurt! It was a spear through the heart of the mostly Democratic incumbentocracy. In fact, any reform, however ill advised, disturbs the status quo. Therefore, any reform will give a temporary advantage to Republicans.

Unsurprisingly, there is an understandable resistance to effective reform from all the usual suspects. Three groups are engaged in the battle, which may cross party lines.

The first group are those professing reform for reform’s sake. This group is convinced that the whole body of reforms will drive the devil of corruption from Connecticut’s politics. Members in good stranding are Andy Sauer, the executive director of Common Cause, energetic reform minded Democrats such as state Rep. Christopher Caruso, Republican well-wishers who hope that some reforms proposed by Rell will serve as a poison pill for Democrat incumbents, and the governor, who thinks certain kinds of contributions are corrupting, an odd confederation of interests.

The second group are incumbents who wish to retain their campaign advantages.

And the third group, negligible at this point, are those who want a healthy turnover in state government. They see rotation in office as one of the safeguards that insure, if not a pristine, perhaps a competent and responsive government.

In any rational politics, this last sober and sane group would carry the day. But no one should hold his breath waiting for sanity to shower Connecticut’s parched republic.
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